Arnold Kling  

The Big Gulp Ban

Elinor Ostrom, RIP... Wal-Mart's Positive Effects...

Will Wilkinson writes,

I've often suspected that paternalists like Mr Noah generally cares more about sending "a powerful message of social disapproval" than about the actual effects of paternalistic policy on welfare. It's worth remembering that liberalism is, at its roots, a philosophy of mutual disarmament in the face of intractable disagreement, and that its most fundamental principle is the presumption of liberty. According to J.S. Mill, "the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition... The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom..." I'm afraid Mr Noah's casual embrace of "baby authoritarianism" illustrates just how thoroughly the technocratic paternalism of American progressivism extinguished the liberal instincts of the left.

Consider two approaches to the Big Gulp phenomenon.

1. A governmental entity passes a resolution condemning large servings of sugary drinks.

2. A governmental entity bans large servings of sugary drinks.

Let me pretend that I support (2) and attempt to explain why it is a superior alternative to (1). My instinct is that a government resolution would not command any respect from the public. People would react by saying, "These politicians think large sugary drinks are bad for people? Who cares?" In order to get people to care about the opinions of politicians, you have to communicate their advice in the form of an ordinance.

That seems like a really ugly argument to me.

Imagine a world in which no government regulations were enforced. Instead, suppose that the government promulgated resolutions and standards (such as the definition of an ounce), and it was up to the public to comply or not. My guess is that what would emerge is that useful regulations would persist and regulations that are not cost-effective would not.

That seems like a world worth thinking more about.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

Because the government is the largest customer in the economy what she asks for she often gets even if she doesn't mandate that things work that way.

Take daylight savings time. Private parties can of course not use the time system or have seasonal hours to undo the DST rules but in practice no one bothers. Or that government currencies are often useful far beyond the areas where the legal tender rules apply because optimal currency areas are more powerful than tender laws.

However, they have limits. Many regulations concern the effects of private behavior on the commons. Voluntary government grazing standards on the commons are not going to cut it. You need property rights, enforced regulation, or power communities with the power to shame if you want to accomplish that.

Dave Lull writes:

But, Mr Kling, don't you know that human evolution makes state intervention inevitable?:

"We have evolved to need coercion" - Evolution’s Sweet Tooth -

Dave Lull

RPLong writes:

No one who supports a Big Gulp ban has a right to use "my body/my choice" as an argument in defense of abortion.

But on the other hand, I don't understand where people get the idea that there was a time when leftists believed in liberty. Liberty is not at the root of leftism - communalism is. As communalism is impossible without authoritarianism, we should all just stop appealing to leftists' sense of liberty.

d writes:

"the liberal instincts of the left."


Tom West writes:

> "the liberal instincts of the left."

> What?

They're right up there with the "liberal instincts of the right."

That's why everyone hates the Libertarians. No understanding of what needs to get banned :-).

Seriously speaking, both the left and the right understand that there are behaviors that need to be restrained in order for a society to succeed, and there are a lot of other behaviors that don't affect society that can be tolerated. They just differ greatly on what those behaviors are.

Greg G writes:

There are few things more silly than thinking that this large soda ban is a good idea. But one of them might be thinking that it is some horrible infringement on our liberties. The fact that this is a big controversy is a sign of how good we have it today compared to previous historical eras.

aaron writes:

I think that people have ignored who buys these big drinks. I would think generally people who will be stuck in a vehicle, on a job site, or chained to a desk for a long time.

Joe Cushing writes:

Greg, I suppose on some level you are right but in reality, this blog posts several times a day. It hits on issues large and small. Within the libertarian circle there are much larger topics of discussion like the president's power to name anyone he wants to a terrorist and kill them with no due process of law. All this said, the soda ban is a big deal because it lays groundwork for more onerous controls over our life later.

Greg G writes:

Joe, I understand your point and I am certainly not arguing that the blog should be restricted to only large issues. My point is that, far from successfully laying the groundwork for more onerous controls, this legislation is bringing that project into disrepute. It is dying a natural death. Have you seen Jon Stewart's stuff on it or the cover of this week's New Yorker magazine?

If we were serious about reducing sugar consumption we would start by eliminating taxpayer subsidies to the sugar industry.

Joe Cushing writes:

I haven't seen John Stewart but I'm glad he's on the case. I'm all for ending all farm and wholesale food subsidies.

Tracy W writes:

I don't find your thought experiment convincing.
If promulgating resolutions and standards were enough, why hasn't the Israel-Palestine issue been settled? Peace has numerous benefits, and there's certainly been a lot of UN resolutions and efforts by the more-pro-Israel-USA to intervene directly.

Or why do burglaries take place? Is that the government hasn't been advising against them firmly enough?

Floccina writes:

This is slightly off topic side note to your argument:
Yesterday, I heard on the radio a discussion featuring the authors of the book “Zoobiquity” ( They made a strong case that it is simply abundance that makes us obese. They pointed out that our pets have gotten fat along with us and that animals in the wild get fat in times of abundance.

So, I do not think that particular foods and drinks are the problem but simply the abundance of food and implies that if you are to have an effective tax it would have to be a calorie tax, that taxes all consumable calories equally.

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